Nestled away in a little corner of the bustling streets, a familiar tune fills the air as throngs of curious spectators began to gather along the sidewalk – some prefer to admire from afar, while others would stop for a moment to listen.
That’s just a day in the life of 22-year-old busker Lee Yee Kien, who not only performs on the streets but is also equally talented in beatboxing and has even bagged a couple of awards from local and regional competitions. A Mathematics and Economics student by day and street musician by night, Yee Kien is part of a small, emerging group of passionate individuals who aren’t afraid to challenge the conventional in this highly sterile society. To them, the city is their stage.
“I like the freedom that the streets give. I can play music when I want without having to answer to anybody or live up to any expectations,” he shares. “I don’t have to be famous or have musical qualifications to be qualified enough to share my voice. Just like any average 22-year-old out there, I have an equal voice as others and I’m happy to be able to show myself to the world on a more humble stage.”
And now, Yee Kien is given the opportunity to bring his unique brand of ‘mouth music’ into the world of theatre. As part of Toy Factory’s outreach programme for inclusive theatrical sharing, the talented lad will be performing a curated set while retelling personal stories that are close to his heart. Ahead of his show this weekend, we caught up with Yee Kien where he shared with us about his love for music, experiences as a street musician and more.
Hi Yee Kien! When did you first discover your passion for music?
I first discovered my passion for singing when I was in primary school. It was a pretty peculiar story – my mother used to teach mother tongue in my primary school and she had high expectations for my oral exams, so she would get us to record ourselves practicing for it on an audio recorder. However, I recorded myself singing instead and that was when I realised I wasn’t that bad of a singer (laughs).
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to many different genres of music – classic music from Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, Mandarin pop songs from JJ Lin and Jay Chou, and acapella tunes from Pentatonix and Home Free, EDM tracks from Zedd and Avicii… the list goes on. I wouldn’t say I have a single artiste who influenced my style of music, but being exposed to all these genres helped me to figure out my music tastes along the way.
So how would you describe your personal musical style?
My personal style in music is pretty niche; even though it covers a wide range of genres, my style of delivery is all through my vocal chords. Beats, you got it. Guitar, coming right up. Er-hu? Violins? Electric guitar? All me! I use this arsenal of sounds I’ve picked up over the years, input it into my looper and fit it into the songs I sing. I’m essentially a one-man acapella band!
What are some of your favourite songs to perform?
I usually like to perform groovier songs like ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson and ‘Red Bone’ by Childish Gambino because I like the influence the groove brings to the audience when I hit the set. You start to see everyone’s heads bobbing along and that’s the kind of good vibes I like to bring to the world.
What was the most interesting audience interaction you’ve ever had during your performances?
There was once I was busking in Punggol, and a young girl approached me asking if I knew the song ‘甜蜜蜜’. Usually, I would reject impromptu requests because of the nature of the looper, but she was holding a $1 coin ready to slot it into my box while giving me the puppy-eye look, so I looped a beat and sang it. She instantly flashed a megawatt smile, and I overheard her telling her mother that she wanted to sing when she grew up. My heart melted!
Another time, I was busking near the residential area and I think someone complained so two police officers came down to investigate. I thought my busking license was going to be revoked, but to my surprise, the police officer gave me a pat on the back and said, “Bro, you were awesome man! Keep doing what you do.” Those words of encouragement really meant a lot to me and it inspired me to keep going.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned from being a street musician?
I’ve learned that passion is what makes the world go around. Buskers may be on the streets for different reasons, but they are all there with one common purpose: to spread their passion to the world. When you actually stop and listen to a busker, you can most definitely feel their passion, and that drive is what makes people do what they do.
What’s a piece of advice you would like to give to youths who want to try busking but never have the courage to do so?
It sounds cliche, but I would say: just do it. It gets easier after you sing the first song, so take the courage to make the first step. If you’re hungry and you wanted food from the coffee shop across the road, but you chose not to because of the fear of getting run over by a car, you’ll never get your food. Remember, there will always be people stopping to watch you perform and that’s all that matters.
This story is part of a brand new series in #TEENAGEPORTFOLIO where we spotlight youths taking on unconventional hustles. For more inspirational stories, be sure to pick up a copy of our latest issue!